Longmont Economic Gardening Initiative

Over the last six years, the City of Longmont, Colorado, has strengthened its economic base by providing local businesses with a variety of resources that improve their competitiveness and stability. The history and practices of the Longmont Economic Gardening Initiative provide lessons for communities seeking to grow their local economies by nurturing local entrepreneurs.

By Christine Hamilton-Pennell, Founder and President, Growing Local Economies

History of Longmont Economic Gardening Initiative (LEGI)

Longmont is named after Longs Peak which is visible throughout the town. It is an hour’s drive north of Denver along highway 287, which bisects the city to become its historic downtown Main Street. The city’s population is 88,000, according to 2011 U.S. Census estimates.

Originally an agriculturally-based economy, Longmont’s economy shifted in the 1960’s with the arrival of a U.S. Government air traffic control center and a large IBM facility.  At that point, Longmont had only grown slightly beyond its original square-mile boundaries since its founding a century earlier. From 1960 to 1970 the city doubled its size and doubled again by 1980.  Recessions and cutbacks at IBM and Storage Tech (a computer storage company founded by ex-IBM employees) slowed growth during the 1980s.  Rapid growth and a more diversified economy resumed in the 1990s, with 20,000 people being added to the town’s population during the decade according to the 2000 Census.

By 2005, the City of Longmont was at a crossroads. With a rapidly growing economy along the entire Colorado Front Range, from Colorado Springs in the south, to Fort Collins in the north, Longmont’s economic future was uncertain and the city was at risk of losing its identity as a unique community. The city understood that thoughtful economic development would help maintain its vital historic downtown, support small businesses and stabilize the city’s tax revenue base

To do this, the city realized that it was important to bring economic development functions inside city government in order to coordinate all economic development activities for the city and address small business development needs. Economic development  had been the purview of a number of external agencies and there was not a coordinated agenda.

Several local forces and initiatives came together in the City of Longmont around that time to move it towards creating its own “economic gardening” initiative. In 2005, a group of small business owners introduced the “economic gardening” concept as a viable option for the City Council to consider.  The suggestion was based on a model program pioneered in the City of Littleton, and administered by the Littleton’s Business/Industry Affairs department.

Economic gardening is a specific type of economic development that seeks to grow the local economy from within. Its premise is that local entrepreneurs create the companies that bring new wealth and economic growth to a region in the form of jobs, increased revenues, and a vibrant local business sector. Economic gardening seeks to focus on growing and nurturing local businesses, particularly those with an external market footprint, rather than hunting for “big game” outside the area.

In early 2006, the City Manager hired Doug Bene to design and oversee the  new economic development efforts.  As a first step, a citizen task force was established, comprising citizens and economic development officials. The task force was charged with developing a strategic set of recommendations around economic vitality for the City of Longmont. 

Throughout the course of two years of strategic work, the consensus among the task force participants was that the focus should be to improve the historic downtown as a pedestrian-friendly activity node, to identify and promote a brand for Longmont that marketed  its strengths as a community, and to “increase the City’s role in economic development by enhancing resources, and support the retail base of our economy through programs and processes that target its growth.”  At the same time, task force members recognized that continuing efforts to create and retain primary jobs is essential to any plan for economic vitality.

With some leeway from the City Council, Doug Bene began to put the Advisory Group’s recommendations into action.  There was a group of local economic development agencies interested in putting together a small business initiative and Bene focused on harmonizing and maximizing their efforts—no duplicating services, always respecting turf, and continuing to find ways all players could work together towards a common goal. Out of this came the Longmont Economic Alliance, a group of ten agencies that served as an advisory board for the new small business initiatives, most notably the economic gardening initiative.

Bene helped to steer the direction of the city’s efforts toward the idea of economic gardening, and the city council voted to allocate $50,000 from the general fund to this new effort. Christened the Longmont Economic Gardening Initiative, LEGI was born in 2006. 

In 2009, Longmont expanded its economic development efforts and hired Brad Power to head a newly-created Economic Development Department.

LEGI Strategies and Implementation

The main goal of LEGI is to establish an internal economic development function within the city itself, to diversify the local economy, and to offer comprehensive, coordinated small business assistance.

The program focuses on local retail and service businesses, particularly along the historic Main Street corridor, which form the backbone of the city’s revenues. By providing these businesses with resources such as business training and marketing research that they otherwise might not be able to afford, LEGI is helping to ensure both the success of the businesses and the long-term economic vitality of Longmont.

Any business in Longmont, whether an existing business or a startup, is eligible to participate in LEGI, and can receive a combination of peer counseling, research data, data analysis, market analysis and competitive and industry intelligence. The initial interview, counseling, research data, and data analysis are free (nominal charges may apply for extended use or optional resources).

For a business to begin the process, they fill out an application online at http://www.ci.longmont.co.us/legi/application.htm. This allows the LEGI office to capture contact information and a paragraph about the entrepreneur’s business idea and the assistance required. The application form is available in both English and Spanish.

When an application form is received, a LEGI staff person contacts the client and sets up an appointment for a more in-depth analysis of their program needs. Appointments are held once a week and there are four slots of 45 minutes to 1 hour in length. In addition to the business owner, the appointment includes a staff person from the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Bene, and one other city economic development staff person. The meeting is confidential, and immediately afterwards staff start to process the request.

LEGI treats all information received from applicants for assistance in a confidential manner. To the full extent allowed by law, they do not reveal any proprietary information (e.g., revenues, new products or strategies) to other businesses, either within or outside the city limits.  They do reserve the right to create a summary list of the work they do for businesses to include in regular reports to the city manager and city council, as well as in a handout on database searches.

Once business clients receive market information, LEGI staff request a follow up meeting with the client. There are no “data pass-offs” – they meet with the client to make sure information is meaningful and useful to their clients. 

When the LEGI program began, they contracted with Front Range Community College to provide both space and research services to LEGI clients. In 2008, LEGI decided to bring the services in-house and provide business and market research to their client businesses by contracting directly with outside research groups such as Access/Information and Geo Wize with Wayne Kocina, both members of the National Economic Gardening group. LEGI pays them an hourly rate on an as-needed basis for their services.

Marcy Dunning and Wanda McDavid, principals at Access/Information, note that through LEGI they “work mostly with start-ups and new businesses. Typical requests include start-up information on regulations at the state level. They often want targeted marketing lists and they also want to see trends in their industries—in the region and in the country.” McDavid believes the relationship with LEGI has been very successful, particularly as the LEGI staff has helped businesses prioritize their questions and become realistic about how research can help them.

To further support small businesses, LEGI also offers numerous training opportunities in addition to the business counseling and research services. Not all of the training options are free, but LEGI subsidizes the training and offers scholarships.

Last year, in partnerships with key stakeholders like SBDC, LEGI offered 28 different seminar and workshop sessions. Many of these workshops include one free hour of consulting time with the presenter.  Given the important role retail plays in the community, the city offers scholarships to a boot camp for retail businesses called “Destination Retail.”

LEGI is also tailoring services to meet the needs of the Longmont business environment. For example, Doug Bene explains, “all of our programs and services are offered in Spanish, and reflect the growing Latino business community as well as the City’s commitment to being inclusive.”

Overall, LEGI fits into a suite of small business services provided by Longmont. According to Brad Power:

"LEGI is primarily focused on our training and workshop programs and individual business assistance, providing things like market information.  We have three other programs that offer financial assistance to businesses: the Business Start-up Grant (BSUG) program which offers $2,000 for reimbursable expenses related to occupying a physical location; the Business Improvement Grant (BIG) program, which provides up to $7,500 for existing businesses that improve their physical location; and the Small Business Lending Program (SBLP) which offers loans to businesses that are considered pre-bankable, in partnership with the Colorado Enterprise Fund. LEGI serves as the access point for all these services. Doug Bene services as the central staff person and coordinates all three areas: grants, loans, and business assistance.”

Role of Partnerships

Partnerships between staff and with external groups are essential to the success of the LEGI and economic development in Longmont.  For example, one of the founding priorities of the Economic Development Department was to unify the efforts of the people working on the built environment with those working on economic development. Brad Power now oversees work in developmental services, permits, city planning and transportation. At the same time, Power coordinates the business assistance efforts of the city, including Doug Bene’s work with LEGI. Putting all these city functions under one roof has had a powerful effect on overall program effectiveness.

As Power explains, “Proximity really helps here. We have twenty-five staff members in this building and we encourage an informal atmosphere. We can just walk people across the hall to find someone with the answers to their questions. When land-use regulators and economic developers are in each other’s world, they respect individual missions; they advance each other’s causes. We can be the glue between all of them.”

Doug Bene and LEGI have built partnerships as they coordinate services offered to small businesses. One of the key players from the start has been the Boulder Small Business Development Center (SBDC), directed by Sharon King. King has collaborated in providing LEGI-sponsored training workshops to Longmont business owners. LEGI also works with the Longmont Public Library, with national retail experts and other local vendors to offer training in areas such as search engine optimization and working with social media.

Bene believes that the key to the success of the LEGI program has been establishing these strong and effective partnerships. King agrees: “The collaboration is wonderful. All of the services are interwoven, and there is a strong intention not to duplicate services.” As Bene states, “the people involved are what makes it happen. It may not be easy to replicate elsewhere. It takes someone with the ability to proactively create relationships—personality matters.” King agrees. “It is personal. It always gets down to the person and their priorities. Even with a small budget, they have been able to leverage a lot of resources.”

Impact of the Initiative

In 2011, Bene and his staff worked with over seventy businesses: from “tire-kickers to established businesses”.  The LEGI resource is becoming well-known in the community. SBDC consultants get requests about why Boulder doesn’t have a similar program, and there has been talk about making LEGI county-wide. Bene receives frequent requests for information about the program from surrounding communities in Colorado.

Business owners are pleased with the LEGI program. Calvin Graning, owner of Daytime Doggy Daddy believes that LEGI made all the difference in his company being successful. “Had I not had access to the resources I got from LEGI, probably the launch of my business would have been put off several months, and I wouldn’t have been able to…dive in, in the position I was in. But boy, the future will certainly be very bright.”

Susan Carlson, owner of the Sun Rose Café & Fine Foods also has high praise for the LEGI program. “I just love Longmont…they’ve been very supportive.” Co-owner Steve Carlson adds “as far as the City itself, they’re very business friendly, they’re very approachable, and I think they’re very proactive in actually approaching businesses as well. We were able to secure a grant which allowed us to purchase some equipment and make some upgrades that really gave us the opportunity to grow as a business.”

In addition to testimonials, Bene and his staff collect or use other economic impact data. Each year they look at whether a business is still operating, and measure vacancy rates and aggregated sales tax revenues for companies with physical locations. (Note: the data collected excludes home-based businesses.) They also try to measure the “pulse” of the business community—what are the business owners feeling about their interactions with the City and doing business there?

To do this, Bene does a lot of business retention interviews with existing businesses using Synchronist, an business retention software platform . However, he finds it challenging to get the companies to participate. Some businesses are reluctant to reveal their revenues and other proprietary data. King also gathers some impact data through the SBDC follow-up process. King uses evaluation forms after every training session.

Bene’s office also maintains a master activity log. They do a tremendous amount of “question answering” although they do not put a metric on that.

To help gather data, King and Bene try to set expectations with businesses at the initial meeting. They talk about an “exchange of value”— what the business can expect from the city and what the city can expect from the business.

Challenges and Next Steps

A significant challenge for the LEGI program has been to explain “economic gardening” to the public and to market the Initiative to the business community.  To get the word out, the city posted videos on the  its website featuring business owners talking about their experiences with LEGI services and what it’s like doing business with and in the City of Longmont.

Brad Power acknowledges the challenge of shifting the perception that the city presents contractors and businesses with “a lot of red tape. We are working hard,” he explains, “to address both the perception and the reality.” There have been revisions and amendments to Longmont codes to help expedite development, and the city council has been careful to keep fees low and maintain an attractive business environment.

Moving forward, LEGI has a number of goals for improving the program. In 2013 they plan to work with more second stage businesses, those growth-oriented businesses that have moved beyond the startup stage and typically employ 10-99 people and bring in at least $1 million in revenue each year. Second stage businesses typically have actual or potential markets outside the local region. According King, they are working on “moving up the food chain with businesses and targeting those that have the potential for bigger markets.”

The LEGI program has been very broad, but now they are at the point of being able to differentiate their services. Bene believes that LEGI has done a good job of providing services to early stage companies. The idea moving forward is to create a “reverse funnel” to focus down on the more growth-oriented businesses. King also feels LEGI is at a tipping point: “There is an opportunity to really grow this.”

Working with second stage businesses presents its own set of challenges. The first challenge is finding and engaging with second stage companies, who may not currently be involved with the city beyond the permit and zoning processes.  Bene believes that strengthening the relationship with the Longmont Economic Council, which serves the needs of the city’s primary businesses, is a crucial step. The SBDC can also help identify appropriate second stage business clients in Longmont through its own set of networks.  Another potential source of referrals are small business professionals who work with second stage clients. These service providers have a vested interest in their clients growing and becoming more successful as it means more businesses for them as well.

A second set of challenges relate to delivering appropriate services. The owners of second stage companies must be convinced that the city has something of value to offer them. Bene believes that the market research services currently provided through LEGI and its contractors can be a draw for second stage companies, especially with their ability to ramp up services to meet the more sophisticated research and training needs of second stage companies. The SBDC also has access to high-level market consultants that can be helpful to second stage companies.

Another goal the city has identified is the creation of a Business Resource Center, which will bring the city’s business-related services under one umbrella. They expect the Center to be fully operational in 2013.

Finally, Bene acknowledges that the city must more effectively gather data that demonstrates the long-term impact of LEGI. They are revising a follow-up survey form that collects more data from business owners on measures such as job creation, revenue creation, and increase in capital expenditures.

Lessons Learned

Those involved in implementing LEGI agree on these important lessons:

  • Leverage available resources. You do not have to do it all yourself or reinvent the wheel. Bene has been able to leverage a small amount of funding because he has gotten added value from the SBDC and other city programs.
  • Brand your program and do aggressive marketing. One of the biggest challenges a program will face is getting the appropriate clients to sign up. Leverage existing economic development organizations, business service providers and media outlets to get the word out. Bene attends 90% of the workshops LEGI offers and always talks about the program and how the businesses can benefit.
  • Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool. Having other businesses vouch for the program is helpful in attracting new folks to the services – especially established companies.
  • Economic gardening programs need to reflect the community, rather than taking a “one-size fits all” position about what kinds of businesses need help. Try to branch out and have multiple fronts.

According to Bene “there are no easy answers. The key is to make your community a welcoming environment to both live and work.”

Appendix: Economic Profile of Longmont

Longmont’s population  is 88,000, according to 2011 U.S. Census estimates. The City has a workforce of 46,366 employees and close to 39 percent of the people who work in Longmont also live in Longmont. Major industry sectors include aerospace, apparel products, biotech, and business services.

The business environment is typical for a city of its size: the majority of businesses are local lifestyle businesses that serve a local market—the so-called Mom-and-Pops that inhabit the historic downtown Main Street and the numerous strip malls within the city. The majority of Longmont businesses have fewer than twenty employees and fall into the retail and service sectors.

There are also a significant number of home-based businesses, many of which were started by displaced workers moving into new fields. While these businesses may not be large job creators, some may have significant external markets through Internet sales.

In addition to small businesses, Longmont has a number of primary employers defined as those who export the majority of their goods outside of the region, thus bringing money into the Longmont area.  The Longmont Area Economic Council reports that as of the first quarter of 2012, there are 210 primary employers in the Longmont area.

Contact Information:

Doug Bene

Economic Development Manager
City of Longmont
Development Services Center
385 Kimbark Street
Longmont, Colorado 80501
Phone: 303.651.8403
Fax: 303.651.8696
doug.bene@ci.longmont.co.us 

Brad Power

Director
Economic Development Department
City of Longmont
385 Kimbark Street
Longmont, Colorado 80501
Phone: 303-651-8481
brad.power@ci.longmont.co.us

Sharon King

Director
Boulder Small Business Development Center (SBDC)
2440 Pearl St, Boulder, CO 80302
528 Main St, Longmont, CO 80501
(303) 442-1475 x3
(720) 207-4303 cell
sharon.king@boulderchamber.com
www.bouldersbdc.com

Sources:

American Community Survey
City of Longmont
Longmont Area Economic Council
Longmont Museum and Cultural Center
U.S. Census Bureau